Friday, August 28, 2009

Marsilio Ficino's "Book of Life"


Marsilio Ficino's Book of Life arrived today.

The Book of Life was a surprise . . .

I'm exchanging journals with Kate from Wyoming. You remember the Moleskine Project I talked about in "The Unknown Aspect of Human Creativity" . . .

She included a translation of the underground classic from 1480.

I thought of Lin Yutang and The Importance of Living . . . . a book that is very important to me.

Ficino talks about the Muses, Mercury, Apollo, and Venus as if they were real people. The language is infused with metaphors the author seems to take literally.

The Book of Life is a book of advice, of counsel, on healthy living. Ficino sees himself as a physician of the soul. He writes, "I have done the healing medicine of souls for a long time now . . ."

Here is a curious passage:
How diligently one must take care of the brain, the heart, the stomach, and the spirit

Runners take care of their legs, athletes take care of their arms, musicians take care of their voices. Those who study and write ought to be at least that much concerned about their brains, and their hearts, their livers and their stomachs. They should even be more concerned, since these parts are more important, and more often used. A skilled craftsman takes great care of his instruments, a soldier his horse and weapons, a hunter his dogs and birds, a lyre-player his lyre, and so on.
Only the priests of the Muses, only the greatest hunters of good and truth, are so negligent and so unfortunate that they seem to neglect totally that instrument with which they are able to measure and comprehend the universe. The instrument is the spirit itself, which doctors define as some vapor of the blood, pure, subtle, warm, and clear. From the warmth of the heart, where it is produced from thinner blood, it flows to the brain, and there the spirit works hard for the functioning of the interior, rather than the exterior, senses. That is why the blood serves the spirit, the spirit serves the senses, and the senses, finally, serve reason.
On the surface, many of these claims sound absurd. Nobody living in the 21st century would agree with a sentence that begins with, "Only the priests of the Muses". And yet, this writing somehow still evokes the truth.

Complete falsehoods interwoven with truths.

The mind is important to me. I just realized this two weeks ago when I immediately stopped smoking pot.

Earlier this evening I was sitting in Border's, where I go every evening to read. As I said, the mind is important to me. Without it, I couldn't read the New York Times, which gives me so much pleasure. And I couldn't write these essays for the Blog of Innocence, which challenge me.

It would be harder every night to write a chapter of my novel. But instead I settle for a task which is hard but not too hard. My mind is able to concentrate better when I'm not frustrated by the task.

I think when I die my ghost will stay here on earth, mainly to roam through Border's and wait for the cafe girls to fill up my coffee. The cafe girls will probably end up ignoring my ghost because they won't know it's me . . .

While I was reading Kate's journal in Border's, I had a palpable sense of her, like she was there beside me.

At the end of the first entry in the journal, I began to draw in the remaining space left on the page.

I drew for about an hour, completely engrossed in squiggly lines.

Doodling has a certain effect on me. I disappear into my doodles. I stop thinking. There is nothing . . .

During the day, I'm ceaselessly striving. I'm striving for a picture in my mind. Every morning I wake up and try to attain this ideal.

You can imagine I'm regularly disappointed. But I brush off the disappointment--I've learned to.

A number of days go by when I'm possessed by a flurry of intoxication over my perceived accomplishments. I feel as though I am really getting there, I'm nearing that perfect thing I want so bad.

It's a dream, a rush, a hallucination. I feel the pulse of achieving whatever it was in my head, whatever seemed so beautiful I had to chase after it.

There are moments when I am thrilled to be me. There are moments when I am giddy over nothing. Because everything feels so right.
The instrument is the spirit itself, which doctors define as some vapor of the blood, pure, subtle, warm, and clear. From the warmth of the heart, where it is produced from thinner blood, it flows to the brain, and there the spirit works hard for the functioning of the interior, rather than the exterior, senses. That is why the blood serves the spirit, the spirit serves the senses, and the senses, finally, serve reason.
I don't even know what it means to be spiritual anymore. I used to meditate. But then I changed my habits, I acquired bad ones again, such as smoking and drinking.

Every day I am caught up in the picture in my mind. There is a larger picture, a landscape, like the city of Oz. But there are pieces too, fragments of the dream, and I try to grab these. I try to snatch them out of the air . . .

Melancholy . . .
Melancholy, that is, black bile, is something double: some of it is called natural by doctors, but another part touches on burning. This natural type is nothing other than a part of the blood getting thicker and dryer. The burning type is divided, however, into four kinds: for it is produced by combustion of either natural melancholy, pure blood, bile, or phlegm.
Nonsense, isn't it? Or maybe, the most sense. It kind of sounds like when a psychiatrist explains a mental disorder by calling it a chemical imbalance in the brain.

What doctor can explain sadness or joy? We are a living cocktail of emotion all hours of the day.

Maybe the only doctor who can explain us is Ficino and his Book of Life . . .

I wouldn't take every word literally. Unless you know that words are metaphors to begin with; that nothing can be taken literally. We say, "dog". But what is a dog?

Those are my thoughts tonight. They are jumbled, irrelevant. I'm making a post on the Blog of Innocence every day. This is part of the picture in my mind.

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4 comments:

jamie nadalin said...

"During the day, Im ceaselessly striving. Im striving for a picture in my mind. Every morning I wake up and try to attain this ideal.

You can imagine Im regularly disappointed. But I brush off the disappointment--Ive learned to."


Your blog is a pleasure to visit, Im very glad to have stumbled upon it. I identify with the above quote very strongly. Not only am I regularly disappointed but also disheartened by not achieving that mysterious goal. Most often I do brush it off, but sometimes I cant help but feel like Ive failed. Whats worse is the goal or picture in mind is so vague, I cant rightly decide how it is I should improve myself or my approach.

I also want to ask you why you stopped smoking pot? You say your mind is important to you, how does pot affect your mind exactly? you see, I smoke on a regular basis, mostly because I think its the only way to feel any real motivation, there are other reasons of course but thats the main one. Sometimes I want to quit though, Im afraid it will turn me into some kind of a blob, a slug. Is that what you felt as well?

Kate Sherrod said...

Im SO GLAD youre reading this. Ficinos book has been fascinating me for years. Its right up there with Carlo Ginzburgs _The Cheese and the Worms_ as a look into how the world really seemed, on a deep, gut level, to people who still lived in a geocentric world, a world in which health was a matter of the balance of four humors, in which literacy was a rare privilege, a world centuries away from anything like what we take for granted as modern medicine, a world in which bleeding and leeches were the essential staple for any medical kit!

Its hard to say how sincerely and concretely Ficino or any of his contemporaries believed in those old gods or the influences of the planets named for them, but Im not sure how much that matters in the end. We can still regard his writing as true in that these are names given to different aspects of the psyche - tenderness, anger, the judge, the adversary, the helpmeet - and how they are drawn out and made felt by what we do and how we behave.

Above all, not just in "On Caring for the Health of Men of Letters" but elsewhere, Ficino really calls for attention to balance, for mindfulness. His cosmos, inner and outer, is rich and deep and animated in a way that modern psychology (and, arguably, religion) is not; hence his adoption as a sort of unofficial Jungian saint.

Having read him many times over the years, I have sort of absorbed a lot of his perspective and find it helpful in many ways. As a metaphorical guide to teasing out what is troubling me it cant be beat. I suppose its like tarot or (choose your favorite form of augury here); whether or not it is true (and for the record, I say no, it isnt) it still, by the paths down which it leads ones thoughts and the reactions it elicits, can illuminate a lot about whats going on in there.

And I see that it already did.

Enjoy the rest in good health, in all the ways that can now mean.

(For the record: I think cutting out the pot is most definitely a step in that direction. Pot smoke to me smells like black bile and has much the same effects, and worse. I like the South Park explanation: it makes you fine with being bored, and its those times youre bored when you should be doing something CREATIVE).

Kate Sherrod said...

Plus, if Marsilio Ficino was good enough to be Lorenzo dMedicis tutor, hes good enough for me ;)

Lethe said...

@Kate: I cant thank you enough for introducing this book into my life. Thank you for clarifying to me that Ficino lived "in a world in which health was a matter of the balance of four humors". This gives me more context for understanding his philosophy.

@Jamie Heres my extended response to your comment. My Response

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